How do you make a prank show in a pandemic? ‘Lean into annoyance’
In an upcoming scene from “Impractical Jokers,” each of the hidden camera show’s four stars pretends to be a photographer taking pictures of aspiring models.
Per the show’s rules — which comes with a viewer warning about ensuing “graphic stupidity” — they must do and say whatever their costars order them to do: It can be something goofy, like Joe Gatto declaring, “my glasses are fake — they’re for the look — but the hat’s prescription”; embarrassing, like Brian Quinn saying he was infamous in Hollywood, but “you’re here, which means you haven’t Googled me,” or Sal Vulcano describing himself as “fat and jazzy”; or downright absurd, like James Murray hiding in bushes to capture candid shots of his model.
In other words, it’s vintage “Jokers,” with the foursome relying on their improv skills and willingness to be publicly humiliated to generate laughs (often accompanied by a cringe). “It’s escapist TV,” Gatto says. “It’s the silly stuff.”
But there was one crucial difference between that photo shoot and the truTV series’ previous eight seasons: This time around, it was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shot largely in and around New York, “Jokers” inverts the typical prank show since they — not the civilians — are the butts of the jokes, with each scene a competition, and each episode culminating in the loser (or losers) being punished. (Murray once had to grab cigarettes from smokers on the street and throw them out. Quinn was told to break a record for smashing eggs on his head before a crowd of horrified children who thought he was there to teach them about the eggs of endangered turtles.)
The quartet of high school friends from Staten Island was in the middle of filming their ninth season, which premieres Feb. 4, when the pandemic struck. And while the network continued to air “Jokers” repeats around the clock — it was cable’s top-ranked unscripted comedy last year — the improv troupe, known as the Tenderloins, was anxious to return to filming.
For months, though, “it just wasn’t the right atmosphere to be out there doing comedy,” Murray says.
(During the shutdown they created a spinoff, “Dinner Party,” in which they visited with — and teased — one another and guests like Ed Harris via video conference.)
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The timing finally felt right last fall. Having already returned to shooting their second series, “The Misery Index,” the four hosts fully trusted the network’s and production team’s COVID-19 protocols. They were more worried about meeting their own expectations. “We’re all very concerned about putting out a subpar show,” Quinn adds. “We want to maintain what we call quality.”
Many of the series’ challenges have involved intimate interactions with strangers — leaning in to get a bizarre petition signed or discuss surreal sightings in cloud formations — which obviously would not work in this strange new world. “We had to rethink everything,” Vulcano says.
Gatto says certain bits, like mock focus group presentations, could be done “without a stutter step” by using fewer participants spaced further apart, “but we had to replace half the show.”
Years of experience helped the foursome find the funny in social distancing. “These situations inspire you to innovate, and the restraints added to their brilliance,” says Brett Weitz, general manager of truTV, TNT and TBS. (In addition to ordering a 10th season, WarnerMedia has locked a first-look deal with the Tenderloins to develop and produce original unscripted and scripted programming for truTV, TNT, TBS and HBO Max. “We wanted to give them a creative home,” Weitz says.)
As improvisers, the hosts found the rules imposed by the pandemic an opportunity to keep the series from becoming stale. “Not only did these ideas work really well, they brought new life too,” Quinn says.
Beyond the outdoor photo shoot, they’ve also played producers in a music studio, where the other person is behind glass and have gone on job interviews via video call. For one challenge they “hired” unsuspecting people to assemble furniture for an eccentric artist. The work was done out in the yard and the joker-as-artist suddenly appeared on a balcony to interact with their new employee.
“It was a really odd dynamic because we were 50 feet away from them,” Vulcano says.
“The further and higher up we were, the funnier it was,” Murray adds.
The lesson, Vulcano explains, is that “the more awkward or uncomfortable you can make something,” the more comic dividends it pays — and peak discomfort comes not in the park or supermarket but “when you’re one on one with no distractions and there’s no escaping the conversation or the line you have to say, with no one to defer to, no way to change the subject.”
Murray says the show was evolving toward such segments even before the pandemic, building a character in a four-minute scene “to see how far you can go,” instead of relying on the rapid-fire, quick hit street bits. Even when the pandemic recedes the jokers plan to keep playing with distance and emphasizing the isolation of one-on-one scenes.
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The participants — real models, voiceover artists and people who go to focus groups for pay — proved enthusiastic, even once it was revealed they’d braved the real world for a fake opportunity. While the group typically has one or two people a week who won’t sign the release form, Murray says only one person in three months refused. (It was a local politician who did not want to be seen going to focus groups during the pandemic.)
“People were definitely ready to interact with other people,” Quinn says, adding that there was often a giddiness to the interactions. “Everybody was in a good mood and really willing to play.”
The pandemic also forced another change the show may permanently adopt. Traditionally, their shoots were peripatetic, jumping daily to a new spot, but Murray says the pandemic often required booking a location for perhaps a week and reusing it repeatedly. With indoor spots, the crew would sanitize at night and then re-dress it for a different shoot the next day. The photo shoot and the balcony artist scenes were both done at outdoor locations in Staten Island’s Snug Harbor.
“Normally we’d be in the basement of a bodega and in some worker’s way,” Gatto says. “This felt less like trespassing and more like a real television show.”
The punishments against the losing cast members posed a different challenge. While past favorites might have been doable with COVID-19 protocols — Murray, who is afraid of heights, was once forced to go skydiving — there’s typically “some interaction with the public in a grandiose way,” says Gatto, who was once forced to portray an investigative reporter and interrogate a biker gang.
“Now we had to get more personal and lean into annoyance,” he adds. Gatto sang Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” live via video call for thousands of fans (as a fundraiser for the Mariano Rivera Foundation), and Vulcano was tortured in a socially distanced poetry class. Murray was made into a celebrity spokesperson: in newspapers, online, on coupons and even a billboard near his home, he’s now promoting My Shiney Hiney as an “anal bleaching enthusiast.”
The jokers also invaded Murray’s suburban home to dye his vast lawn pink. They then told him Home and Garden was coming for a photo shoot before handing him a manual lawn mower to undo the damage. After Murray frantically mowed for two hours, the “photographer” turned out to be Rob Emmer, who is to “Jokers” what Larry “Bud” Melman was to David Letterman. (Emmer then couldn’t get his Polaroid to work.)
Without giving away his favorite, Gatto says that for a socially distanced Quinn, “We came up with the most annoying punishment we’ve ever come up with on the show.”
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